To significantly advance the cooperation between the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding will require a meeting of minds on what I call the three “Ps,” namely premises, principles, and processes.  First, meaningful cooperation between two organizations is founded on antecedent agreement on certain propositions.  The most basic of these is whether or not Southeast Asia needs outside help to prevent and resolve conflicts in the region.  If it does, has it recognized it?  Are the regional states well disposed to receiving external role or assistance in managing inter-state conflicts?  What about internal conflicts?

With the past and current involvement of the United Nations or its specialized agencies in the cases of Cambodia, East Timor, Myanmar, Sipadan and Ligitan, as well as its participation in the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences, and in the ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meetings, the above questions seem academic.  As observed in previous seminars of this kind held in Thailand and Singapore between 1993 and 1994, what was really under consideration was how this could be improved and expanded to enhance the capabilities of both ASEAN and the UN.1

And yet ASEAN has no institutional arrangement with principal UN organs responsible for conflict prevention.  ASEAN does not even have a status at the United Nations.  Most of UN involvements in Southeast Asia were promulgated by the UN General Assembly or UN Security Council resolutions, which were not necessarily initiated by ASEAN or by countries from Southeast Asia.  There is no ASEAN contingent in any UN peacekeeping operations, even in Southeast Asia.  In the case of Myanmar today, there is no formal contact between the Special Representative of the UNSG and ASEAN.

In the light of this situation, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the historic ASEAN-UN summit of February 2000 in Bangkok, bluntly asked in his opening statement: “Why is ASEAN the only major regional organization without observer status at the United Nations? Why have we found little to say each other on peace and security issues at the very time when new forms of security challenges are presenting themselves?”

This gap in institutional relationship between the UN and ASEAN was again highlighted in his speech before the Indonesian Council on World Affairs in the same week of February 2000.  Mr. Annan said, “Today, ASEAN is not only a well-functioning, indispensable reality in the region. It is a real force to be reckoned with far beyond the region. It is also a trusted partner of the United Nations in the field of development. I hope that in the field of peace and security, too, we will see the beginnings of closer cooperation between ASEAN and the United Nations.”

Granting that the Southeast Asian region has conflicts and disputes that require multilateral or regional intervention, does ASEAN have the will and capacity to take up this role?  Broadly defined, ASEAN itself is a confidence-building mechanism.  In a sense, it prevents conflicts by managing interdependence and promoting integration giving its members stakes in each other’s peace, stability and prosperity.  Its enduring commitment to respect each other’s territorial integrity has eliminated grave threats of invasion or incursion within the neighborhood.

Over the years, ASEAN has slowly but consistently undertaken some initiatives to promote the habit of dialogue and consultation as ways of preventing conflicts.  These include providing a multilateral forum for political and security dialogue in the form of the ASEAN Regional Forum.  Within ASEAN, processes like the annual ASEAN summit, regular meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers, and joint meetings of foreign and defense officials keep the communications open among the member states. 

Cooperation between individual Southeast Asian countries and the United Nations is indeed possible and has actually been happening over the years.  But ASEAN-United Nations cooperation can only be initiated in areas where ASEAN itself is willing to do collectively.  The minimalist mind genuinely believes that it is far more important to maintain friendly inter-state relations and to keep the regional framework in place than to be proactive in resolving specific conflicts which have no regional implications.  It is consistent with the notion that ASEAN is bigger than the sum of its specific activities.

Until ASEAN has forged a consensus in which to broadly define and observe its fundamental policy of “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another,” it will find it difficult to assume a more proactive role in conflict management, particularly if the dispute or conflict is not inter-state in nature.  Obviously, ASEAN needs to further build confidence among its members.  This matter, however, cannot be divorced from ASEAN states political systems.  The more democratic they are, the more open they would be to offers of external assistance. 

In paper, ASEAN has established at least two mechanisms – the High Council under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the ASEAN Troika – that more than imply ASEAN’s recognition that the organization should do something at least “to take cognizance of the existence of disputes or situations likely to disturb regional peace and harmony.”  ASEAN should make them useful when situations demand it.    At the same time, ASEAN states’ acceptance of the past and present role of the UN in the region, should generate enough lessons and arguments in forging a consensus that engaging the UN to discuss early signs of conflict would be useful. 

Second, to secure the commitment of all concerned, cooperation should be governed by a set of shared values and principles.  The most important of these is the commitment to the peace process.  The whole business of conflict prevention and peace-building is founded on this principle.  As a matter of principle, ASEAN and the UN agree on the peace process and the imperative of conflict prevention.

The second article of ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) commits all parties to settle differences or disputes by peaceful means and to renounce the threat or use of force.  Enacted under treaty obligations, this is one of the most important contributions of ASEAN to securing regional stability.  But its application is limited to inter-state relations.  ASEAN has no legally binding instrument setting a common standard in managing domestic conflicts.

The TAC further subscribes to the imperative of conflict prevention.  Article 13 mandates parties to have the determination and good faith to prevent disputes from arising.  Indeed, ASEAN has never been used as a platform to provoke conflicts among its members.  But by shelving potentially contentious issues, ASEAN, in fact, is on the receiving end of criticism in the way its prevents disputes from becoming more serious than maintaining the status quo.  Minimalists philosophy contends that the whole range of ASEAN political, economic and functional cooperation is a form of confidence building aimed at promoting friendship and avoiding misunderstanding. 

The attitude of the United Nations on the current debate between the principle of national sovereignty and international humanitarian intervention is crucial to advancing cooperation between the UN and regional organizations.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has spoken about the indivisibility of humanity.  He said, “The world cannot stand aside when gross and systematic violation of human rights are taking place with grave humanitarian consequences.”2   He argued that the aim of the United Nations was to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abused them. 

There exist underlying motives for divergent views.  The constant competition of states for power and influence poses serious implications for national and regional security policy.  The division of the world into different power blocks and spheres of influence, particularly during the Cold War years, fueled inter-state tensions.  Moreover, relations between the developed and developing countries were far from smooth in the decades following the period of decolonization.  Powerful and rich countries dominate policy-making in various councils of the world.  In various occasions, unilateral actions made multilateral consensus in vain, not without global consequences.  Therefore, the preservation of independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity is a fundamental and legitimate concern particularly of the weak, small, fragile, and newly independent states. 

The question whether human security is compatible with state and regional security is a function of the interplay of the territoriality of the nation state and the non-territoriality of the human being.  This situation need not lead to irreconcilably opposing views.  ASEAN-UN cooperation should try to forge a consensus on balancing the pursuit of state and human security. 

National governments and regional institutions must preserve and extend the progress made in securing states against the external threat of war while finding ways to safeguard the people against internal threats of repression and gross deprivation of basic human needs.  While the universal concern for human security should not be used as a cover to undermine the political integrity of nation states, particularly in the developing world, regional and national security should not be used as an argument to perpetuate gross violation and deprivation of human security and against international intervention.

Whatever the reservations might be, ASEAN members are bound by Article 16 of the TAC mandating parties to disputes to be well disposed to offers of assistance of dispute settlement.  The TAC does not preclude recourse to the modes of peaceful settlement contained in Article 33 of the charter of the United Nations.  It was in this spirit where Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to submit their territorial disputes over Sipadan and Ligitan to the International Court of Justice.  This case of conflict resolution is an important milestone in the development of confidence and in the maturing relations among Southeast Asian states. 

The management of the Sipadan and Ligitan disputes suggests the centrality of the principle of consent by the parties concerned in paving the way for third party adjudication.  In the same manner, it is also the consent of Indonesia that made possible the deployment of the multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor to stabilize the fast deteriorating situation there following the referendum of August 1999.  Consent by Myanmar also makes it possible for the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to fulfill his mission in that country today.

In the above cases, the processes and circumstances of securing the consent were different depending on the perceptions of the countries concerned where the United Nations stood.  In situations where the United Nations was seen as not impartial, consent was more difficult to obtain.  Therefore, adherence to the principle of impartiality and objectivity by an honest broker is important for ASEAN to build confidence in engaging the United Nations.

 Third, ASEAN and UN engagements could be pursued at two levels: bilateral and multilateral.  As indicated above, bilateral dialogue and cooperation between the UN and the individual member states of ASEAN have been taking place over the years.  The appointment of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Myanmar is only the latest of UNSG’s good offices role in ASEAN. 

Any effort at preventing conflict from becoming overt confrontation would find the process of dialogue indispensable.  Dialogue should not be an end in itself, but in protracted conflict, such as in the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, regular consultations could serve as an interim way out of maintaining peace and stability in the area. 

Bilateral consultations seem to be the preferred approach at present.  But this should not preclude ASEAN and the ARF from inviting the United Nations at least to exchange views on areas of common concerns at the multilateral level.  It does not make much sense to exclude the UN from discussions, say in ARF, and expect it at the same time to take cognizance of disputes, conflicts and security issues in the region.

At the political level, the ASEAN-UN summit of February 2000 was an important opportunity for both sides to set the tone and priorities for long-term cooperation.  It is important to sustain the relationship at this level and in this period of relative peace in the region.

In the past, it seemed that there was tendency to engage the UN only when conflicts had erupted and needed to be contained or when it was time for post-conflict peace-building.  Without questioning its significance, this could well be the case of the ASEAN-UN multilateral cooperation at the height of the Cambodian problem.  It may be recalled that the Special Representative of the UNSG for Humanitarian Affairs in Southeast Asia was invited by the ASEAN foreign ministers in their annual meeting between 1983 and 1990 to coordinate the implementation of UNGA resolutions on Cambodia.  But then again, in the spectrum of the peace process, conflict containment could also mean preventing conflict escalation.

At the operational level, the search for appropriate modalities for cooperation among regional organizations and the United Nations should aim to enhance speedy operational response to situations likely to disturb regional peace and security.  It should aim to optimize mobilization of resources – human, technical and financial – of concerned regional organizations and the different components of the UN system based on their comparative advantages to consolidate efforts and eliminate duplication and competition. 

The series of meetings between the UN and regional organizations over the last decade have identified four possible operational areas for cooperation.  First, identification of situations where peace-building is required.  This involves keeping a watching brief on all such potential situations, acting as sources of “early warning” and determining at which point a particular situation is ripe for peace-building action.  Second, definition of political objectives, including deployment of joint preliminary assessment missions and ensuring a realistic negotiated political settlement.  Third, development of integrated operational response.  This could be promoted through regular and systematic working group meetings on specific peace-building issues between the UN and regional organizations.  Fourth, joint monitoring of results of peace-building by keeping all parties informed of the progress achieved or obstacles encountered as well as identifying remedial measures. 

There have been proposals for the UN to establish “assistance programs” complemented with staff who are experts in dispute resolution.  The creation of such professional “service” which could offer assistance to member states could help overcome resistance to high profile political approach.  It might also be useful to revisit a proposal to establish UN Regional Centers for Sustainable Peace.  They are intended to develop a stronger conflict prevention presence on the ground and facilitate coordination between UN and regional organizations by proximity.3   If a UN-initiated body is not feasible at present, ASEAN could explore the possibility of establishing a Conflict Prevention Center along the lines of the experience of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  The center’s main responsibility would be to support the good offices role of the ASEAN/ARF chairman-in-office and to maintain liaison with key UN agencies and personnel.

Forging a vision of the possible

By their nature, there cannot be a once and for all meeting of minds on such premises, principles and processes.  Common understanding of the concepts and structures of peace evolve over a period of time.  They arise from the interplay between regular dialogue and specific experiences from specific cooperative activities.  They are products either of conflict settlement or cooperative security relationship.  Their direction is also a function of domestic political outlook.

The experience of Southeast Asia affirms this.  The establishment of ASEAN following the period of decolonization, the Declaration of ZOPFAN at the height of the Cold War, the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation eight years after the establishment of ASEAN, the completion of the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone eighteen years after Indonesia submitted a working paper on the denuclearization of Southeast Asia, the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum at the end of the Cold War, the provision for an ASEAN Troika after the East Timor experience, the ASEAN-China political declaration on the South China Sea on the eve of the sixth ASEAN-China Summit, and the participation of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in Southeast Asia at the annual ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences for almost the whole decade of the 1980s – all came about in response to specific threats, challenges, crises, and opportunities of their specific times.  Some of them have enduring usefulness, some limited, while others might have been superseded by new realities, alliances and purposes.  They have made up the building blocks of cooperative security community in Southeast Asia. 

If instruments and processes of peace are products of their times, will a consensus on the three “Ps” matter?  They matter in the sense that they could elevate the UN-ASEAN collaboration in conflict management from one that is “forced” to one where ASEAN has confidence in being well disposed towards offer of external assistance.

Without the benefit of such a situation, the prospects of UN-ASEAN cooperation will remain limited if the status of recommendations of last year’s conference is an indication.  Let me cite some major ones. 

First recommendation, bring to the attention of ASEAN the policy suggestions.  Indeed, ASEAN, particularly, the ASEAN-Senior Officials Meeting has taken note of the holding of the previous conferences.  But there are no owners of the recommendations.  No one pushes anything specific at the official level.  The results of the Manila conference form part of several other related conferences held in the region in the course of the year.  Unlike in other areas of ASEAN cooperation, the ASEAN Secretariat has only slight role on political matters.  Thus, unless member states themselves raise such issues, ASEAN bodies usually do not take up matters which are either beyond their work program or might be difficult to obtain consensus on. 

Second, identify situations and issues where UN-ASEAN security cooperation could be enhanced.  Since ASEAN is inclined to leave domestic and bilateral conflicts to national governments and domestic actors concerned, the only traditional security threat, which has regional dimension and which ASEAN has taken cognizance is the overlapping claims in the South China Sea.  Last year’s recommendation for UN and ASEAN to jointly undertake workshops on UNCLOS and its implications for the SCS has not been followed up.  Assistance might also be needed in undertaking studies on the identified areas for cooperation among the parties concerned in the recently concluded declaration on the conduct of parties in the SCS.  However, there is a need to overcome a situation where China might express disapproval of the UN involvement in the SCS disputes.  This conference may wish to identify at its future sessions some non-traditional security issues where UN and ASEAN can collaborate.        

Third, explore the possibility of establishing an ASEAN-UN Dialogue relationship.  This suggestion was based on the conviction that conflict prevention and enduring peace could be better promoted through structural and not just operational approach.  In fact, this is not new.  The United Nations Development Programme is among the first Dialogue Partners of ASEAN.  We have had sixth cycles of development assistance programme reflecting the priorities of both ASEAN and the UNDP since the 1970s.  Current cooperation is focused on promoting regional economic integration to enhance the member states’ economic development and competitiveness.  Using the experience of other ASEAN Dialogue Partners, the UNDP and the UNDPA may jointly explore with ASEAN the broadening of ASEAN-UN Dialogue to include political and security matters of mutual interest. 

Fourth, examine the merit and feasibility of the UN’s participation at the ASEAN Regional Forum.  To have a basis for assessing new applicants for membership, the ARF adopted a set of criteria in July 1999, which, among others, required that all new participants must be sovereign states.  At this time, it is unlikely that the said criteria would be placed under review.  Thus, if the United Nations is interested, it could explore the possibility of being accorded an Observer status at the ARF.  There is no such status in any ARF practice guide, but there is no explicit prohibition either.  Several international organizations have had attended various ARF inter-sessional meetings in the past, such as the UN Department Peacekeeping Operations, International Maritime Organization, International Maritime Bureau, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Committee of the Red Cross, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, the Asian Disaster Reduction Center, and Inter-State Council on Natural and Man-Made Disasters.  I recall that the presentation on the good offices role of the UNSG by Mr. Francesc Vendrell of the UN Department of Political Affairs in Singapore in September 1997 was found very useful by the ARF Track Two Conference on Preventive Diplomacy, which was then considering the ARF paper on preventive diplomacy.
It is possible, in my opinion, that UNDPA attendance could be considered in future meetings of the ARF ISG/ISM and at Track Two activities.  UNDPA attendance would enhance its understanding of regional views on evolving regional political and security issues.  Greater understanding would be translated into greater effectiveness in undertaking UNSG good offices role and assistance in conflict prevention.  But for this to happen, UNDPA must communicate directly with the ARF Chair.  A conference report will not be sufficient to carry the process forward. 

Fifth, examine the merit and feasibility of an observer status for ASEAN at the UN General Assembly.  On several occasions in the past, this matter was taken up by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in consultations with the ASEAN member states’ Permanent Representatives to the United Nations.  Most ASEAN members are open to this possibility, but there has to be new factors or compelling reason to consider for this matter to be revisited.  Meanwhile, the ASEAN Secretariat has participated both at the high-level and working-level meetings between the UN and regional organizations on conflict prevention and peace-building.  The last meeting was held in April-May 2002.

Sixth, establish a center for peacekeeping in ASEAN.  This proposal was made by former UNTAET Peacekeeping Force Commander, Lt. Gen. Jaime de los Santos.  UN Assistant Secretary-General Danilo Turk has expressed UNDPA’s readiness to solicit assistance from the UNDPKO if ASEAN decides to establish it.  There has been no progress on this matter.

Let me briefly share the experience of the ARF on this subject.  A proposal to establish a peacekeeping center has been included in the indicative list of medium to long-term goals of the ARF, which is annexed to the ARF Concept Paper.  Pending its establishment, the ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Peacekeeping Operations has recommended closer cooperation and networking among the peacekeeping training centers of the member states, such as by sharing curricula and course information and offering places in training programmes.  Several peacekeeping workshops have also been held among ARF participants.  This approach seems to be what is feasible at the moment.  On the broader issue of peacekeeping, ARF participants have been called upon to subscribe to the UN Standby Arrangements for Peacekeeping and to become parties to the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel.  Progress in these areas has been noted.

Finally, continue holding this seminar.  This seems to be the only recommendation that has been achieved fully.  However, it may be time to consider few practical ideas in greater depth.  If resources are available, the seminar could commission in-depth studies on carefully selected ideas for the consideration of future seminars.  Coming up with well thought-out recommendations could enhance the standing of this conference in the ASEAN circle.  They would be welcomed in the light of the limited resources and capability of ASEAN to undertake such studies.  Indeed, UNDP and other specialized agencies of the UN could be “used innovatively” as suggested by ASG Danilo Turk last year.  For example, this conference could follow-up on the results of the ARF Seminar on Economic Security, which was held in Vietnam last year, or initiate research and discussions on areas for cooperation identified in the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.  The valued role of the ASEAN-ISIS in this annual conference is the key to establishing a link with the ASEAN-SOM.  At the same time, more involved participation of ASEAN officials at this conference will enhance the prospects of UN-ASEAN collaboration.


It is not only possible to enhance ASEAN and UN cooperation in conflict prevention and peace-building.  It is imperative to do so in the light of the limits of security regionalism.  The higher level of trust and confidence among their members should normally enable regional organizations to assume a distinct advantage in conflict prevention, even as they are constrained by such principles as non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.  But most regional organizations, like ASEAN, have very limited capability in conflict resolution, not to mention post-conflict peace-building. 

ASEAN’s only treaty-based instrument for pacific settlement of disputes applies only to inter-state conflicts.  It is an important document with an important purpose.  But at this time when most conflicts are domestic rather than inter-state, ASEAN finds itself without adequate instruments and agreed parameters to assume a collective role.  Almost a decade ago when the first round of this seminar started, the Permanent Secretary of Singapore Foreign Ministry suggested that, “more flesh” be grown on the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation “to equip ASEAN for the role.”4   It is worth repeating this call. 

Only with political resolve will ASEAN be able to effectively assume a role in conflict management both at the domestic and inter-state levels.  Enhancing cooperation with the UN in this field presupposes that ASEAN itself, and on its own, is prepared to play that role.  It would take a critical number of ASEAN leaders, having a meeting of minds, to build a momentum for constructive engagement.  By doing so, ASEAN would be narrowing the divergence between the sense of crisis and the institutional outlook resulting from a mismatch between public expectations on one hand and institutional purposes, capacity and political will on the other, which afflicts most inter-governmental organizations.5  

Cooperation between the United Nations and ASEAN is important not because they must always move in tandem, but because they have common responsibilities and mutually-reinforcing capabilities in maintaining peace and managing conflicts.  They need not only be acutely aware of their different roles.  They should actually appreciate and accept each other’s complementary and balancing roles while forging consensus and shared vision of the possible – for the sake of peace.

1.  See for instance, Linda J. Perkin, “ASEAN-UN Cooperation for Peace and Preventive Diplomacy,” in Sarasin Viraphol and Werner Pfennig (eds), ASEAN-UN Cooperation in Preventive Diplomacy, (Bangkok: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1995), pp. 5-14.
2.  Kofi Annan, “Two Concepts of Sovereignty,” The Economist, September 18, 1999, p. 49
3.  See Final Report of the Seminar on Strengthening Cooperative Approaches to Conflict Prevention: The Role of Regional Organizations and the United Nations, (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1998).
4.  Peter Chan, “Setting the Agenda,” in Viraphol and Pfennig (eds.), op. cit., pp. 3-4.
5.  For discussion on this state of affairs common to many regional organizations, see Connie Peck, Sustainable Peace: The Role of the UN and Regional Organizations in Preventing Deadly Conflict, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998), pp. 257-260.